MEDIA WATCH

Substance versus fabricated fury

No one who knows journalism could pretend that reaction, or follow-up, stories aren’t most often cooked to order

GEORGE BAIN January 23 1989
MEDIA WATCH

Substance versus fabricated fury

No one who knows journalism could pretend that reaction, or follow-up, stories aren’t most often cooked to order

GEORGE BAIN January 23 1989

Substance versus fabricated fury

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

The Halifax Chronicle-Herald’s red headline on Dec. 29 said “Refugee agenda panned.” A three-column subhead below said “ ‘Mass deportation’ will follow—lawyer.” The same day, at the other end of the country, the main story on the same subject—the just-announced steps by which Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall proposes to sort out genuine from bogus claimants to refugee status—ran in The Vancouver Sun under the page-width banner “Refugee plan knocked.” In Calgary, the editors of the Herald reduced the story to one related solely to refugee claimants in Calgary, under the heading “Refugees fear fed’s cleanup.” What is seen first in the treatment given this national story in three newspapers is an oddity become commonplace. It is the subordination of news not previously carried in the same columns—McDougall had spoken in Toronto only after press time the day before—to the reaction to it. As a result, the introduction The Chronicle-Herald’s readers had to McDougall’s plans was to learn that they were “panned” and would produce mass deportations. (Having ascribed the prediction of mass deportations to “critics,” The Canadian Press story under The Chronicle-Herald’s heading associated it with only one person—Toronto immigration lawyer Mendel Green, who said there would be 60,000.) Beyond McDougall herself, who did not pan her own program, and the clairvoyant Green, the story quoted only one other person, the chairman of a church refugee group, who said, “There is great potential for error under the new system.”

Still, The Chronicle-Herald was no more sweeping in its headline over its agency story than The Vancouver Sun was in its head over a story by staff reporters Kevin Griffin and Doug Ward. In immediate contrast to the headline “Refugee plan knocked,” their lead paragraph said more evenly, “The federal government’s intention to provide refugee claimants with a case-by-case review has received a mixed reaction.” Four of five persons quoted were indeed

No one who knows journalism could pretend that reaction, or follow-up, stories aren’t most often cooked to order

critical, but for reasons so varied as to cancel one another. They extended from fear that the $ 100-million cost of the new screening program would prejudice taxpayers against refugees at large to questions about the government’s guts in not simply chucking out all ostensible refugees about whom doubts existed at all. The fifth, a member of the established Sikh community, spoke evenhandedly of anxiety among claimants: “Every day they ask me, ‘What is going to happen?’ It’s a very big issue, and every one of them is scared.”

The Calgary Herald, having reported under a joint byline—Alan Boras, staff writer, and The Canadian Press—that “many of Calgary’s 1,100 refugee claimants fear Canada’s new plan . . . will mean deportation to torture and possible death,” revealed in a second paragraph the slender basis on which that rested. Several (“more than two or three, but not many”—Oxford) refugee claimants had called a worker at the local Interfaith Coalition for Refugees to ask questions. The story quoted in total four persons other than McDougall: a spokesman for the Mennonite community, who was not critical; the worker for the Interfaith Coalition for Refugees; a Calgary “immigration consultant”; and an anonymous refugee claim-

ant who said, although not within quotation marks, that in his homeland he had been tortured. That indirect quote was the closest the story came to supporting the assertion that many feared “deportation to torture and possible death.” The substance of McDougall’s plan was dispatched in eight random sentences.

If we accept that the news was a government policy to deal with a recognized national problem, those stories were what used to be called follow-ups. But, as is increasingly the case, they were follow-ups to which the news itself was rendered incidental, buried under the reaction. Because of that, the newspapers, of which the three cited are only examples, tacitly acknowledged themselves to be second-string sources of information that they were prepared to assume their readers would have got first from radio and television. As the incomparable advantage newspapers have over the broadcast media in dealing with the substance of news constitutes the strongest justification for their continuing to exist, newspapers do themselves no favor when they allow themselves to be seen performing as a sort of tail to the electronic kite.

What is also wrong with the growing practice of treating news of public policy simply as a vehicle to deliver the reaction of interest groups to it is that it fosters negativity—as witness not just the stories cited, but those in The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail on that same day, Dec. 29. Those newspapers reported more fully what the minister had in mind, but led with the government’s failure to declare an amnesty (“No amnesty for 85,000 refugees”—the Star; “No amnesty for refugee claimants/Thousands face deportation”—the Globe). In fact, the prospect of an amnesty arose mainly in media speculation and had no previous encouragement from the minister. As Carol Goar, the Star’s Ottawa columnist, said on page 10, in contrast to the shock-horror head on page 1, “It should have come as no surprise to anyone, yesterday, that McDougall ruled out a New Year’s amnesty. It was a tough, uncompromising stand, one very much in character.”

There is no argument here against the place of follow-up, or reaction, stories in journalism. Still, no one who knows journalism could pretend that reaction stories aren’t most often cooked to order by seeking out people whose reactions are predictable—and who may not be entirely disinterested. (Perhaps, if Canada’s immigration system had not been in a mess for years, there would not be so many immigration lawyers and so-called immigration consultants to comment scathingly on attempts to make it more straightforward.) But this is about media. It is not good for newspapers if, in their anxiety to overtake with new leads the essentially headline news of radio and television, they allow predictable special-interest reaction to dominate—to the point of obliterating what it is supposed to be in response to. It is not good for them because it may cause those oldfashioned consumers of news who still look to print for the substance—as distinct from the fabricated fury—of life around them to wonder if they’re in the wrong church.